Odd as it may seem, Gallatin, Tennessee has good reason to embrace a new spray paint mural that features skateboarding. The artwork depicts the late local hero Ray Underhill — who became Tennessee’s first professional skater in the 1980s — and it could be the spark for more street art across the city.
That’s largely because of the strong backing of Mayor Paige Brown. She wants to revise city code to foster public art, and she happens to be closely tied to the skateboarding community.
Add into the mix an artist known for epic country music murals in Nashville — who now lives in Gallatin — and the ingredients came together for a rare Gallatin mural debut this month.
“When I was coming up as a young skateboarder, late '80s, early '90s, [Underhill] was at the pinnacle,” said artist Bryan Deese. “And to know that someone from our area made it that big was just mind-blowing and super influential.”
Deese, who painted black-and-white likenesses of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and other superstars on walls in Nashville, approached the city with his idea.
“You know, being a former graffiti guy and street artist, I always see walls that would be awesome placements for murals,” he said. “So this is the first step to hopefully do a lot more murals in Gallatin.”
Deese painted two images of Underhill on a large concession stand wall that overlooks the Gallatin Skate Park. In one portrait, based on an old skateboarding advertisement, Underhill smirks. In the other, he’s upside down, wearing knee pads and a helmet, in one of his classic vert skating poses — one that even Tony Hawk praised in a statement about the mural.
“It is a testament to how far we’ve come as skaters, but more importantly it shows how Ray’s spirit continues to inspire,” wrote Hawk, an early teammate with Underhill in the highly influential Bones Brigade. “The impression he left on all of us is that we wanted to spend more time with him. His ‘Pop-tarts’ and stale front-side inverts were groundbreaking, and to this day nobody can do them like he did.”
Underhill died of a brain tumor related to spinal cancer in 2008 and has been remembered ever since through the activity of the Ray Underhill Foundation, which raises money to fight the disease and support families.
This Mural Easier Than Most
Officials had no doubt that Underhill was deserving of recognition. But the city isn’t known for public art.
“There’s a mural on Main Street, it’s 17 years old now… it’s falling apart,” says skater and artist Kyle Maines.
The primary challenge to artists is restrictive city codes, which count murals as signage — and those ordinances are notoriously strict.
“Murals, for the city the size of ours, are still kind of new,” said Mayor Paige Brown. “We’ve been having meetings figuring out what we need to do.”
Taking cues from Nashville, she’d like to create a separate category for public art.
For Brown, it didn’t hurt that this first new mural is steeped in skateboarding. The mayor is the aunt of the city’s current nationally known skater, Jake Wooten, who some see as the inheritor of Underhill's legacy (see Native magazine for a short history of local skateboarding).
“There are a lot of people my age, or probably all ages, that haven’t been exposed to skateboarding and don’t understand the positive impact that it has on so many people,” Brown said.
In Gallatin, Skating And Art Dovetail
Even in high-heel boots, the mayor is comfortable among the skate park ramps, and she coaxed the skaters to come see the mural dedication and to honor Underhill’s family on Friday.
“A lot of us felt that having this here, overlooking the skate park was very, very significant for our community, in proper remembrance, and for the skaters,” she told a crowd of 50.
Underhill’s father said he hadn’t understood his late son’s popularity until his passing — and several old-school skaters in attendance said Ray Underhill was an “even better person than a skater.”
“Ray was probably one of the nicest guys that ever walked the face of the planet,” said Scott Binkley, of Westmoreland. “I miss him … skateboarding’s a brotherhood, and that’s why we’re out here.
And with the skate community out in full force, the mayor had a surprise: in addition to murals, Brown is also hoping to pursue a grant for a new, fully concrete skate park —an upgrade that Underhill would have loved.
“So what I’m asking of you all is to rally the troops and help show support for that,” Brown said. “I know you skaters would enjoy that, but we need to know that it’s important to the people who aren’t skaters, because they love and support you.”